Ghetto fabulous

Scarred by violence and political repression, Brazil's shanty towns have responded with an outpourin

The decor is made from scrap found on the streets. The interior is styled with lovable and exotic informal-ity, like some kind of tropical party shack; customers can listen to samba, drink caipirinhas and eat feijoada. This is the recently opened Favela Chic, one of the busiest bars in London's already bar-heavy Shoreditch.

Less than a mile away is an art installation without which, you could argue, Favela Chic may never have happened. Tropicalia, made in 1967 by Helio Oiticica and recreated at the Barbican for a festival season of Brazilian culture, is a gallery space turned into an ad-hoc Brazilian shanty, a favela. There is sand on the floor, rubber plants and bamboo fencing. Both Tropicalia and Favela Chic are middle-class interpretations of slum life, and both feature a playful juxta-position of cliches, whether it is the squawking parrots in the Barbican or the funky remixes of traditional folk songs that have diners in Shore-ditch dancing on tables.

Oiticica's installation gave the name to an artistic movement that is much better known for its music. Tropicalia became a focus for counter-cultural experimentation as Brazil, in the late 1960s, headed into its darkest years of dictatorship. The singers Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Gal Costa and the band Os Mutantes were the most visible Tropicalistas, and their innovative and energetic combination of international and domestic musical styles really did change the course of Brazilian pop music (and inspired northern-hemisphere artists from David Byrne to Beck). On Favela Chic's website there is an image that is a blatant parody of the cover of the movement's definitive 1968 album, Tropicalia.

I wonder quite what a Brazilian shanty-dweller would make of a venue such as Favela Chic, which glamorises poverty, and where a round of drinks costs the equivalent of his monthly salary. The answer, I suspect, is that he would be quietly flattered. Favelas may be dangerous and impoverished - as the world saw in Fernando Meirelles's film City of God - but their people are increasingly proud of their outlook on life. As a story of one favela's triumph over adversity, there is hardly anything more inspiring than the tale of Vigario Geral and AfroReggae.

The Brazilian Portuguese word "chacina" has no direct translation in English. It means the killing in cold blood of more than one person - less dramatic than "massacre" and more speci- fic than "slaughter". Chacinas are in the news almost every week, and some acquire an epoch-defining status. Such was the case in Vigario Geral, a favela on the outskirts of Rio where, in August 1993, police shot dead 21 residents with no apparent motive. The image of corpses lined up in wooden boxes, in dark contrast to the usual Rio postcards of bikini-clad girls lying on Copacabana Beach, was seen around the world.

In the aftermath of the killings, local kids started a newsletter-cum-Bob Marley fanzine called AfroReggae News. Even though Brazil has more black people than any other country in the world apart from Nigeria, there are, with the obvious exception of Pele, surprisingly few home-grown role models. Favelas such as Vigario Geral are predominantly black: despite Brazil's reputation as a "racial democracy", race is still the most powerful indication of social status. There have been only three black members of government in Brazil's history. The first was Pele, a decade ago; the second is Gilberto Gil, the former Tropicalista rebel who became minister of culture in 2003; the third lasted a year in office.

Around the newsletter arose a community centre and a musical group - organised by the local promoter Jose Junior and musician Anderson Sa - which offered percussion classes and then moved into dance, capoeira, football and recycling. At the core was Banda AfroReggae, led by the charismatic Anderson Sa. The group's name is, to musicologists, a misnomer: the style is a mix and match of rock, hip-hop, pop and reggae with heavy Brazilian percussion. With a huge graffiti screen as a backdrop, men beating huge drums hanging from their waists, and forceful political lyrics, there is nothing laid-back and Jamaican about their stage shows. The performances are loud and energetic and full of capoeira-influenced circus acrobatics.

AfroReggae is now a reference point for how music and art can transform communities. "If you compare the Vigario Geral of today with what it used to be, there is less suffering. There are fewer killings, more jobs, more happiness. And most importantly, there is hope," says Jose Junior in Matt Mochary and Jeff Zimbalist's 2005 documentary Favela Rising, which has its UK premiere as part of the Barbican season. With AfroReggae providing leisure activities and dreams of an alternative career that the state has been unable to provide, the number of young people involved in the armed drugs trade has fallen dramatically. The band performs in favelas throughout Rio, it has a record deal with Universal, and its percussionists are in demand by leading artists such as Caetano Veloso and Elza Soares.

In 2004, Sa banged his head against some rocks while surfing in Ipanema, lost consciousness and was paraplegic when he woke up. Favela Rising charts his recovery - described as extremely unlikely even by the specialists who treated him - and he is now able to perform again. The film uses his struggle to walk as a metaphor for favelas trying to emerge from their own paralysis, although I was more touched by the brutal irony of a man who has devoted himself to fighting against violence losing his mobility not from a stray bullet but in a surfing accident.

AfroReggae will be performing as part of the Barbican's Tropicalia season and will be joined on stage by the British rappers Estelle and Ty. On a superficial level, it is an obvious joining of black urban styles, and nothing much to do with a revolutionary artistic movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet AfroReggae's music has been described as having the spontaneity, improvisation and organicity of a Helio Oiticica installation.

"The music is a collage of stylistic dif-ferences," writes Hermano Vianna, an anthropologist and adviser to Gilberto Gil. "Few songs have just one rhythm. Each rhythm wants to seduce us, but then has to give its place up for the next one that comes along." Usually, the noise that governs favelas is the sound of gunfire. "What you hear in AfroReggae is a sonic revolt: the regime of sounds that were suffocated by bullets returning to be heard. There are many different sounds . . . it's not a cacophony but an aesthetic posture intimately linked to an experience of favela life."

Tropicalia was a reaction to the military dictatorship of the time. Brazil has had civilian rule for two decades and now the most pressing domestic issue is social justice. It makes AfroReggae's appearance at the Barbican particularly relevant. Vigario Geral would never be described as chic, but favela culture is leaving the ghetto and reaching out to the world.

"Tropicalia: a revolution in Brazilian culture" is at the Barbican, London EC2 (www.barbican.org.uk) until 22 May. AfroReggae performs at the Barbican on 3 and 4 March, in Oxford on 6 March and Manchester on 10 and 11 March. Favela Rising will be screened at the Barbican on 1 March and at the ICA, London SW1 (www.ica.org.uk) from 10 to 31 March

Next Article